Monday, 13 February 2012

Risking Frostbite For Shorties And A Local Waxwing

I've avoided going to see the short-eared owls of late, for several reasons - too many people, too many similar photographs (from me) and also wanting to see other birds. But with snow on the ground, I thought it might be worth another go, for some different-looking images of them. I had also seen reports from another site in Leicestershire, so thought I'd try there first. 

As I crossed the county border into Leicestershire, the car's outside temperature sensor was reading -10C, and it only got lower from there on. By the time I reached the lane near Hallaton, it was -14C, and the road was actually a track, covered in 6 inches of snow. With heavy fog surrounding me too, and the "road" being steep in places, I chose to abandon the first idea, and head south to Northants, to the usual spot. Maybe it'd be better there? 

It wasn't. If anything, it was worse. The snow was deeper and the fog thicker, and it was -16C. After driving for 90 mins, I was in need of a toilet break, but couldn't open the car door from the inside! Had to put the window down and pull it open using the outside handle! The front of the car looked like it had been sprayed with ice! After adding some colour to the snow, I drove further down the track to find I wasn't the first person there! 

With the fog preventing me from seeing the field where the owls hunt, I stupidly chose to drive closer, and bump, bump, thump, quickly told me it was a very bad idea. I was stuck. The back wheels were in a hole and the front not gripping. What a prize pillock. I managed, with a lot of digging and scraping (hands only), and the use of some paper in the boot, to get the car moved by about a foot, but it was not going further. Then out of the fog wandered a familiar, if not rather frosted face. Carl. 

He greeted me with the kind words of "You tit, are you stuck?" but then kindly came over to help push. Sadly even he couldn't help move the car more than a yard. Thankfully, out of the fog appeared a couple, sensibly walking. The chap came over and moments later, after a lot of revving and spinning, the car was back on the track and safe. To say I was thankful was an understatement. 

After about an hour, both Tony and Ian had arrived and we were chatting away, keeping a look out for any movement in the mist, and hoping it would lift. As it started to, Carl spotted an owl in the hedge nearby, but the sound of walking over the snow spooked it further off, where it landed and revealed a gathering of birds! As the fog cleared, we counted 10 owls sat in the hedge, which for a bird that is generally so aggressive to one another when hunting, seemed rather unusual. But perhaps there is warmth in numbers, so needs must. 

By lunchtime, Bob had also arrived, along with a few others, and we were stood round, hoping the owls might stir, and do something other than occasionally preen or sleep. Problem was, as the fog had gone, the sun was hitting the snow and produced a horrid glare and haze, meaning focusing was a nightmare. 

One by one, the owls took flight, mostly up and over the hedge, but they then seemed to favour the fields well away from us. Maybe the ice was thinner there. We caught up with a couple though, which favoured the area near us, as the edges of the cropped fields were broken up with taller plants and I think the owls could reach their prey through it.  

One owl flew past us with a half-eaten vole hanging from its talons, proving that they could still catch food, despite the conditions.  

As soon as the sun sank behind the hill, my word did it get cold. My fingers were numb in seconds, and we chose to head back to the cars, to see if we could get out. Most folks had gone by now, though Ian was sensibly sat in the warmth of his car. One lad had trouble leaving as the handbrake on his car froze on! Our problems weren't over though. On the way out, there's a steep hill, and it was covered in ice. 

Bob led the way, but at the steepest part, some walkers got in his way and he had to slow. Fatal. Traction lost, he started to slide uncontrollably backwards towards me! Engaging reverse, so Ian behind could see the problem, we slithered and reversed back to the bottom again. 

Ian opted to turn around and head out the other way, but I was quietly confident my car had enough grip to get out. Taking the lead, I tried again, and with no walkers to hinder me, 2nd gear got me up and out. Not so for poor Bob, who I saw in my mirrors, slow and slide back again. So infuriating. 

Ian had made it out, and I called Bob to ask what he was going to do. He had an offer from a 4x4 driver of a tow, but he tried again, and in 3rd gear managed to get up and out. Thank goodness! 

Took me the rest of the evening to thaw out, and I've ruined my sprained wrist again, with the efforts to free the car. Was almost worth it though, as I got a few half decent images, though nothing special. 

Sunday started with me sorting some images out for the Worcs Trust 2013 Calendar competition, which was an effort as I couldn't recall many productive trips last year. Thankfully, I scoured the hard drives and found some trips to Upton Warren, and also Knowles Coppice (Wyre Forest) which gave me enough shots for an attempt at any rate. 

Back from Smite, after dropping off the envelope, I checked my phone and saw a text from Birding Today, saying a waxwing was down the road from my Dad's house. A phone call and quick drive later, and we were both looking at it, in a berry tree beside one of the roads. Causing a lot of curtain-twitching and drivers slowing down to ask, it was a mini-ripple of bemusement for the local residents.  

Unfortunately, the light was very flat and with no sun or blue skies to bring out the colours of this beautiful migrant, I had to use all my Photoshop skills to get any sort of image from the shots taken. Came out ok, actually in the end, and given the lack of these birds here this winter, any shot taken is worthwhile.  

I only stayed for perhaps an hour, as I needed to get back and ready to go out, and the clouds certainly weren't looking like they would part, any time soon. Great to see one of these birds locally though, and also good to put some faces to some of the names I see reporting birds in that area too.


Max Silverman said...

Blimey Pete what a trip to Hanging Horton.I would not have come out alive.
Love the Waxie shots.Not seen one this year.

Pete Walkden said...

Strangely didn't feel too cold when the sun was out, but when the sun left us, we almost froze to death. Had to sit with the heated seats on full power to warm up and get some feeling back in my extremities.

The waxwing was still there this morning, if you want to see it.

Christian said...

Great story and I love the second owl image, hunting with the soft snowy background.